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Shale Oil: Geologist's Alaska Gamble Could Turn Into America's Next Big Shale Play

Although some local residents and environmentalists have raised concerns that fracking operations could taint drinking water supplies, the issue has not become a major sticking point in Great Bear's development plans.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is currently taking public comment on draft fracking regulations that would apply to the state's future unconventional oil operations ( EnergyWire , Jan. 3.)

Duncan said the North Slope's bountiful water supply "is a huge benefit to us. We're doing an aquifer study to establish rates of deliverability and also to identify bands in the deep subsurface that we can use as sites for injecting our drilling waste."

Alaska also has ample supplies of sand that Duncan predicts will be suitable for fracking.

"We're fairly confident we should be able to find an in-state source," he said. "Something like that would be a huge cost driver for us in terms of being able to find local sources as opposed to having to ship such a large quantity of fairly heavy material."

At the same time, however, the company is facing a serious scarcity of rigs and a lack of trained workers.

"The primary thing that separates the North Slope from the lower 48 right now is a shortfall in rigs and other drilling and completion equipment that will be necessary for full development of these places," Duncan noted. "There simply aren't very many suitable rigs on the North Slope at this time."

That shortage hit Great Bear this winter when the company was in the middle of testing the oil resources at its Alcor and Merak drill sites.

"We did one test, one perk and sampled oil out of one of the unconventional zones that we encountered in Alcor," Duncan recalled. "We also encountered that zone at Merak. But we ran out of time."

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